When John Wimber, only 63, fell and died of a brain hemorrhage this past November, we were forced to ponder so unceremonious an end for this prominent preacher of divine healing and other wonders. In recent years Wimber had battled cancer, a stroke, and heart disease, for which many interceded on his behalf. Instead of being healed, his weary body was laid in the ground, leaving admirers and critics alike to sort through the considerable legacy he had left to evangelical Christians.
That legacy leaves many uncomfortable—his linking of "signs and wonders" with church growth, his insistence on seeking the gifts of the Spirit, and his contribution to a participatory style of worship that slipped on wings of song through the back doors of even many avowedly noncharismatic churches. In later years, he saw certain groups in his Vineyard movement splinter off into unfortunate extremes. This, says Kevin Springer, a pastor and coauthor with Wimber of Power Healing and Power Evangelism, was largely due to his ministry philosophy of "Let the bush grow and then trim it." Under his leadership the Vineyard churches multiplied to more than 750 fellowships worldwide.
Perhaps Wimber's greatest impact, however, was in reminding the larger evangelical community that certain "Pentecostal emphases" could also be found in the Bible. "He raised the level of expectation of divine action in the life of the church," says J. I. Packer of Regent College, who at times took issue with points in Wimber's teaching. Wayne Grudem, author of The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, notes, "He continually talked about the ways we could recognize the Holy Spirit when he manifested himself in people's lives."
Such talk, of course, unsettled those of us whose understandings of the Holy Spirit kept him in a restrictive theological box. So when he died, that skepticism that wants to discount a worker of miracles felt affirmed. This prophet, too, was but a frail mortal.
Yet John Wimber realized his own frailty, never forgetting that he had been a beer-guzzling, drug-abusing pop musician who was converted at the age of 29 while chain-smoking his way through a Quaker-led Bible study. To the extent that he embraced his weaknesses, humbly hearing his critics and asking forgiveness when he had erred (and trimming back the bush when necessary)—to that extent God's power, about which he wrote so much, showed the stronger through him. "Our job is to pray for healing; God's job is to do the healing," Wimber often said, including when he lost his close friend, British charismatic leader David Watson, to cancer after praying fervently for his restoration.
It was this unadorned but theologically astute view of healing that Wimber would want us to remember now in the wake of his early death.
Evangelicals will miss Wimber. And we will recall with gratitude this man who opened himself so transparently to the work of the Holy Spirit that God chose him to teach us what couldn't be found in even the best seminary textbooks. For this reason, John Wimber was, in Packer's words, "a good gift of God to the church."
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